Many thanks again to the St. Andrews Orthodox Church in Ashland for their warm hospitality. Thanks also to the members of the Trinity Baptist Church in West Point (my former congregation) for their attendance. It is my prayer that we will continue to continue to dialogue with one another and evangelize based on our holy Orthodox tradition.
KING AND THE AFRICAN SAINTS:
A BRIDGE TO BE BUILT
John Robert Gresham, Jr., President and Co-Founder
Virginia Chapter of the Brotherhood of Saint Moses the Black
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit;
Christ is in our midst! He is and ever shall be!
A blessed feast of St. Anthony the Egyptian to everyone. Yes, today, January 17th, we commemorate the African who the Orthodox world considers to be the father of Christian monasticism. Anthony willingly gave up an earthly inheritance and through prayer in the Egyptian desert, sought and gave an example of how to pursue the kingdom of God. Tomorrow, the 18th, we will celebrate the memory of one of his protégés, St. Athanasius. As an African deacon, Athanasius is considered to be the hero of the First Ecumenical Council of 325 AD proclaiming that God the Son was co-eternal and co-substantial with God the Father. This deacon would later become the Patriarch of Alexandria and compile a list of four Gospels and 23 epistles that would be canonized as the New Testament. It is also the feast day of St. Cyril of Alexandria. He was the later African bishop who successfully proclaimed that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine during the Third Ecumenical Council of 431 AD. On Monday the 19th, we will celebrate the memory of St. Macarius, a contemporary and friend of St. Anthony. The prayers and spiritual life of this African holy man were so influential to Orthodox Christianity that his words are found in prayer books in the hands of Ethiopian school children to the monks of Optina and Valaam Monasteries in Russia. And let me back track on the calendar for a moment and wish you all a blessed feast day of the Venerable Paul of Thebes, which was January 15th. This was the African monk who was an inspiration to Anthony in his ascetic struggles. On January 15th, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia; Martin Luther King, Jr. was born. On the Monday following January 15th, the United States of America commemorates King’s birthday with a national holiday. Without a doubt, God through the calendar has made a firm foundation for a bridge between African-Americans and the Orthodox Church. This afternoon, I will propose a couple of reasons why this bridge must be built. And as long as the Lord allows me to stay on this side of the Jordan, I commit my life to its construction.
During Black History Month, we tend to hear and repeat the familiar proverb, “If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.” Dr. King emphasized our need to know the African-Americans who have contributed major achievements and discoveries to our nation and the world. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here, he mentions the likes of Daniel Hale Williams conducting the first successful heart surgery, Grandville Woods and his expertise in electric motors as examples of people that blacks should look up to and hold up for our younger generations to strive towards. Rightly so, nearly every black church has pictures of these, King, and other heroes of our past and present on display on a bulletin board or wall of fame. Every culture should honor its heroes for the kingdom of earth, in particular those who did things to uplift all peoples and not just their own.
By honoring the African saints, we honor the men and women who struggled for the kingdom of heaven, which is far more important than any earthly culture or nation. In fact, the saints transcend cultural and national boundaries for those who seek the kingdom of heaven. St. Mary of Egypt was an insatiable prostitute who repented of her former life and dwelled in the deserts of Jordan as an example for all believers to turn their lives to holiness. On the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, in Orthodox Churches from Kampala, Uganda to Belgrade, Serbia to Kodiak, Alaska; we reflect on her repentant life and venerate her icons. St. Moses of Ethiopia (aka, the Black, the Robber, the Strong) is heralded for his forgiving spirit. On his way to a trial to judge a brother for his sins, Moses carried a leaky basket of sand on his back proclaiming to the council, “I cannot see my sins that spill out from behind me, yet I am to judge someone else?” It is because of these and other stories that an image of him was painted on the walls of the Russian Orthodox Seminary in Jordanville NY in the 1920’s. If these and other holy men and women of Africa have been and are honored by Orthodox Christians of all races, if striving toward the kingdom of heaven is greater than striving for the kingdom of earth, if the saying is true that if you don’t know your past – you don’t know your future; then it is imparitive that we Orthodox Christians share these saints with African-Americans and we African-Americans embrace their contributions to the body of Christ.
For us who know these saints to keep them in our churches and homes and not share them with others who need them is akin to keeping lamps under a bushel basket. Jesus declared in Matthew 5:14-16 that we are not to do this, but instead, to put our lamps on lamp stands to give light to everyone. The reposed Metropolitan Philip said that the reason that Orthodoxy is the best kept secret in America is because we Orthodox have been too lazy to share our faith. Perhaps we need not knock on peoples doors and thrust our material at people like some other groups. But, we can be present in times when the black community celebrates various festivals and when it struggles against injustice. We can speak individually to friends and acquaintances. Our aim need not be immediate conversion as there is nothing immediate about Orthodoxy. We need to love our neighbors and share the precious jewels of these African saints and any other holy people of our tradition as needed and the Church and Spirit leads us. Failure to do so is failure to live up to our calling as Christians.
Some of us Orthodox fear that if we share this knowledge, we will gain converts that would diminish cultural identity of our churches. Most of our churches have an ethnicity as a part of our church name. To my brothers and sisters who have this fear, please be reminded of Acts 13:1 that at the Church of Antioch, the leadership was mixed race and by the Holy Spirit, some were sent as missionaries to other peoples so that the body of Christ would be made up of all humanity. The Apostle Paul, one of those sent, is recorded declaring that all are in Christ and Christ is in all! There is nothing wrong with preserving Ethiopian, Greek, Russian, or any other culture. In my Antiochian parish, we have people greeting and conversing in their native tongues during the agape meal. But, when we come together for the services and partake of the Holy Eucharist, the only language that matters is that of the gift of our Lord. In fact, there was a council in the early 1800’s that condemned ethnocentrism. So, to make the preservation of culture as an excuse not to share the African saints with African-American people is against the teaching of the Orthodox Church and the One who established our faith.
There are some of us African-Americans who will ignore the African saints since they are not found in the Bible. While these men and women are not in the Holy Scriptures, they are in the Holy Tradition that led to the compilation of the Gospels and Epistles, and (again) this was done by the African Bishop Athanasius who was inspired by Anthony who was inspired by Paul of Thebes, and a contemporary of and shared inspiration with Macarius. The New Testament was canonized in the African city of Carthage where another African Bishop Cyprian was martyred while maintaining the church in the midst of persecution and, earlier in that same city, an African woman, Perpetua kept a journal of the persecutions and tortures of her and her sister in Christ, Felicity. To ignore these and other African heroes of the Holy Tradition is to ignore the inspiration of the creation of the Holy Bible its self. That is like upholding a marinara sauce and disregarding the tomato that it is made from.
Again, some would argue that God could have used someone other than Athanasius to put the New Testament together and that the saints were only men like you and I. Therefore, we have no need to recognize them. True, all of the saints of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East were just men and women like you and I. God didn’t have to use any of them for his will. He could have used anybody. He could have used anybody to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He could have used anybody to write the Letter from Birmingham Jail. He could have used anybody to make the “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, lead the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, and “Go to the Mountaintop and See the Promised Land” before being assassinated in Memphis. God didn’t choose just anybody for these task; He chose King for these roles. He chose the various saints of Africa and around the world for their task. So to honor King and ignore the saints of early Christianity that helped inspire and solidify the faith that he practiced is short-changing ourselves. Even for those of us who prefer to remain in our various Protestant denominations and non-denominations, we African-Americans can ill-afford not to know all of who we are in Christ!
The bridge between King and the African saints can only be built by communication between the Orthodox and African-American communities. Praise be to God that for over 20 years the Brotherhood of Saint Moses the Black is in that bridge building business. Father Moses Berry, Priest-Monk Alexi, Mother Katherine Weston, and others have formed a unique, multi-racial, Pan-Orthodox community of believers from across the nation dedicated to spreading the ancient faith to African-Americans and all who would “Come and See” for themselves. In October of 2013, I came to their conference in Kansas City at the Saint Mary of Egypt Serbian Orthodox Church. It is located on the racial dividing line of that city along with the Desert Wisdom bookstore and Reconciliation Ministries. It was there that I saw the racial divide overcome by our shared faith. It was there that we gathered for a social night of music from classical violin to traditional jazz. We heard lectures ranging from a doctor that gives some of her services free of charge to those in need and a layman that runs a program teaching males to become men. We celebrated a Divine Liturgy with readings in Amharic, Serbo-Croatian, and English, the Great Entrance made with Ethiopian style shield/umbrellas over the clergy and Holy Eucharist, and the sounds of Negro Spirituals (according to the OCA Bishop Dimitri, is the only truly salvific music made in this country) as the worship closed. The bridge between us can be built if we Orthodox would go to black America and open its doors and if we African Americans would dare to come and see for ourselves.
Again, the foundation for building the bridge is on the calendar. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the feast day of Paul of Thebes is January 15th. The national holiday commemorating the fallen Christian minister and Civil Rights leader is on the Monday following the 15th. January 17th is the feast of St. Anthony, the 17th is that of Athanasius and Cyril, and the 18th is that of Macarius. Let’s build.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.